Wednesday, August 10, 2016
C.A. Rejects Brown Act Suit Against City Council as SLAPP
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A suit charging Culver City councilmembers with violating the state’s open-meeting law in connection with their handling of a church’s bid to ease parking restrictions was properly thrown out under the anti-SLAPP statute, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Eight Monday ordered publication of its July 15 opinion in the case.
The panel affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson’s order striking the complaint by five city residents who alleged the council violated the Ralph M. Brown Act by discussing the parking issue even though it was not on the meeting agenda, and by acting on the issue by allowing the church to proceed with an appeal of an earlier denial of a challenge to the restrictions.
The panel held that the action arose from protected activity, that the public-interest exception to the statute did not defeat the motion because the residents were acting in their personal interest, and that the plaintiffs did not make a prima facie showing of a Brown Act violation.
The conflict between Grace Lutheran Church and the residents of nearby Farragut Drive goes back to 1982, the court noted, when residents allegedly jammed the street with parked cars during services. This led to parking restrictions in the area, and in 2004 the restrictions were made part of a city ordinance.
That in turn led to the creation of a “traffic committee” of traffic engineering staff members, assigned to implement regulations on preferential and residential permit parking. In 2014, the church began the process of challenging the existing restrictions, which the church described as “onerous.”
At a meeting held in August of that year, then-Councilman Andrew Weissman noted during the portion of the meeting devoted to receipt of correspondence that he had received a letter from the church’s lawyer. A six-minute discussion involving the mayor and the public works director/city engineer ensued, following the church’s request to review the restrictions was placed on the agenda for the next meeting.
The Farragut Drive residents then filed a declaratory action charging that the discussion of the letter and placement of the matter on the agenda violated the Brown Act. The city responded with the anti-SLAPP motion, arguing that it had done nothing more than engage in preliminary discussions concerning a matter to be placed on a future agenda, which the act expressly permits.
Johnson agreed, as did the Court of Appeal.
Justice Laurence Rubin, writing for the panel, said the homeowners were acting on behalf of themselves, not the wider public, so that the public-interest exception did not bar the motion.
“Keeping the parking restriction at status quo would directly benefit plaintiff Farragut Drive homeowners,” Rubin wrote. “In short, plaintiffs sought personal relief in the form of a halt to any attempts by the church to undo the long-standing parking restrictions. As a result, the public interest exception to the anti-SLAPP provisions does not apply.”
Turning to the merits, he rejected the plaintiffs’ claims that the council engaged in prohibited substantive discussion on the issue.
The city established the applicability of the statutory exceptions for brief discussion of items to be placed on a future agenda; for brief questions, announcements, or reports on members’ or staff activities; and for brief responses to comments by members of the public.
“Based on our reading of the transcript and viewing of the video recording, Weisman did no more than ask for clarification as to the appropriate avenue of response to the church’s letter,” the justice wrote. “Engineer [Charles] Herbertson answered those questions and advised the council that the matter could be placed on a future agenda, with all parties given notice and an opportunity to comment.”
Rubin also rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that the placement of the issue on the agenda violated the traffic regulations themselves, which the plaintiffs argued left the church with no standing because only area residents could challenge the restrictions.
That was not a Brown Act issue, Rubin said, because the statute only requires the legislative body to follow its own rules and procedures with respect to setting agendas. “To hold otherwise would convert the Brown Act into a vehicle for challenging agendized matters because opponents believe the legislative body lacks authority to act for reasons unrelated to the policies behind the open meeting law,” he said.
Besides, Rubin wrote, the plaintiffs failed to persuade the court that their interpretation was correct, since it would effectively preclude the city from reconsidering longstanding restrictions, “no matter how much conditions had changed,” unless the challenge came from residents of the particular parking zone.
Cruz v. Culver City, 16 S.O.S. 4016, was argued in the Court of Appeal by Herbert L. Greenberg for the plaintiffs and Thomas B. Brown of Burke, Williams & Sorenson for the defendants.
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